Last week visiting British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire had a public address at The University of Yangon moved at the last minute to a closed-door private location “for reasons beyond our control”. This has reopened re-opened the debate on the role of universities in Myanmar. The change of venue reminded us that universities are not yet spaces of open debate and political activity.
“I hope that one day people like me will be able to give speeches there, at the university, that provoke and give cause for debate,” Swire said. “This is, after all, the first duty… of any university.”
Yangon University, like others in Myanmar, has been deliberately decentralised in order to prevent student gatherings that may lead to protest. This, in turn, has weakened higher education in Myanmar and undermined the legal profession thereby inhibiting the rule of law.
Reform in Myanmar has included the limited reopening of Rangoon Uninversity, now know as the University of Yangon, to undergraduates. Historically central to political activism in Myanmar, from the country’s struggle for independence to the 1988 anti-government uprising, the once prestigious university has been mostly locked up for years. The university’s history of radical campus politics has been on hold since it was shuttered in response to recurring student uprisings. Yet despite recent reform, political activities remain highly restricted and student life is limited on campus. On the radical history of Rangoon University see: http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/multimedia-burma/rangoon-university-history-protest.html
This state of affairs has a negative impact on the rule of law in Myanmar. There have been no lawyers trained at Rangoon University since 1996. This year the door has been opened to 50 undergraduates but most potential lawyers are still trained by correspondence of a dubious quality. The legal profession has come under disrepute due to its impotence and allegations of corruption. Many see lawyers purely as brokers who negotiate deals within a corrupt system. Admission standards to law schools are low, curriculum and teaching is outdated and lawyers are not well paid. As a result, the profession does not yet attract the most highly qualified candidates. On the reopening of the law school see: http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/school-law-small-step-rule-law.html
The International Commission of Jurists points out that ‘quality legal education is an essential requirement for producing competent legal professionals who can serve their clients’ interests and contribute to the rule of law and fair administration of justice.’ This education must include an understanding of international law and an awareness of the role of lawyers and their ethical duties. Lawyers in Myanmar agree that legal education in this regard is poor. There is little confidence in the preparedness of law graduates as they focus only on civil and criminal law with little understanding of anything else.
Many Myanmar lawyers believe that previous governments have deliberately downgraded the profession in order to curtail ‘activist’ lawyers who may disrupt discipline and harmony. Distance education has ensured minimal contact between students limiting potential political activism. Instead, students memorize the provided test answers in solitude. In order to effectively practice law lawyers explain that they need to educate themselves after law school. For more from the ICJ on the problems of legal education and rule of law in Myanmar see: http://icj.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/MYANMAR-Right-to-Counsel-electronic.pdf
Lawyers have an essential function within the rule of law and are central to protecting human rights. From fair trial rights and the prohibition against arbitrary detention to challenging the legal basis of arrests and filing habeas corpus petitions, they play a crucial part in combating impunity and in proceedings aimed at obtaining other forms of reparation. Moreover, lawyers also play a key role in challenging national legislation that undermines human rights and the rule of law.
Despite calls to increase spending on education, Myanmar does not plan to substantially boost its allocation of funds over the last in the next fiscal year. The quality of education at all levels of the system is generally poor, and the ratio of government expenditure on education to overall GDP is amongst the lowest in the world. Before the reforms of 2011 military spending dominated the budget. Some estimates had military spending as high as 50 or 60% of the national budget with education spending as low as 1%. Since then the allocation has been estimated around 5.5 percent. The Financial Commission has proposed to allocate 5.92 percent of the national budget for education in the 2014. The system requires massive investment in order to bring it up to date after decades of deliberate neglect and this might not be enough.
State media did not reveal how big the total national budget would be, or the percentage allocated to the military. Despite reforms, the powerful military is still allocated the largest share of expenditure. Last year lawmakers approved the government’s proposed $2.4 billion military budget with an overwhelming majority. For more on the budget see: http://www.burmanet.org/news/2010/06/04/irrawaddy-burmas-military-budget-to-increase-significantly/; http://www.burmanet.org/news/2010/10/29/time-burmas-new-breed-–-hannah-beech/; http://www.burmanet.org/news/2014/01/10/the-irrawaddy-burma-government-health-education-budgets-likely-to-remain-low-in-2014/
The ICJ recommends that The Ministry of Education should commit to improving legal education in Myanmar by bolstering standards of admission to law school, law school curricula, and instruction and assessment of students while facilitating collaboration with the international community. Education spending worldwide is contracting and in Myanmar there are significant challenges ahead. Myanmar is set to receive increased income from the sale of its national resources to foreign investors. These funds would be well placed invested in legal education. Otherwise, progress towards the rule of law will be slow.